Finding The Balance Between Pushover And Picking Your Battles

by Sarah Cottrell
Milan Marjanovic / iStock

My oldest son and I have been glitching since day one. OK, maybe more like day 493, but I digress. He is, in many ways, exactly like me and his compulsion to question authority and otherwise find himself in the midst of trouble has been a never-ending battle for me.

As my first child, he bore the brunt of my testing out the advice I learned from researching what good parenting is supposed to look like. Everything I read went into great detail about how I need to assert control over everything, be consistent but firm, never ever forget about follow-through, and no matter what, remember that kids need strong boundaries and rules in order to thrive.

This advice was great on paper, but in my house, it was turning my new (and growing) family into a ball of frazzled arguments over everything from screen time to what constitutes a healthy dinner (not ice cream). We literally fought about everything.

One day in the middle of an all-out war over whether or not nunchucks should be allowed to be played with inside the house, my son looked me square in the eye and said, “Why are you so mean? I love Dad more than you! He doesn’t have all these stupid rules!”

To say that my heart felt crushed is an understatement. Up until this point, I was so sure that I was doing this parenting thing right and that the reason it was so hard was simply because I was doing my job. It had not occurred to me that my no-negotiations rules were hurtful to my kid and that his world was being shaped by my inflexibility.

I felt horrible. I didn’t want to be entirely permissive, but being a total hard-ass wasn’t working out so great either.

So, not knowing really where to start, I turned to my mom friends. The consensus? You can’t let your kids dictate everything, but you can offer them choices and flexibility at the appropriate times.

It turns out I needed to get better at choosing my battles, which meant that I had to figure out when my impulse to correct my son was out of a genuine desire for him to learn something (not to prop dirty feet on the dinner table) or my need to control the situation (insisting that he wear the clothes I choose just so that he looks the way I want him to). This has felt like a Herculean effort many times. It still does sometimes.

Parenting magazine writer, Stephanie Dolgoff writes, “If giving in sounds like a cop-out, believe you me, it’s not. In fact […], when they see you work out what’s really important, they learn how to work out for themselves what’s really important.”

Since the idea of picking your battles hinges on occasionally letting your kid win, it is important to give your kid the opportunity to understand why he is winning or not. This is where the fine art of diplomacy comes into play. Discussing the contentious issue at hand with an open mind and an open heart allows you, the parent, to use compassion and parent-smarts to determine if you should stick to your guns or let your kid win this one.

By letting your kids win a “battle,” you are teaching them the value of respectful discourse while allowing them to take responsibility and ownership of their ideas and plans. So, when you agree to let your kid wear shorts even though you think it’s too chilly, your green-lighting his idea means that he is learning how to hone his sense of independence and learn natural consequences (you may be too cold at recess).

We are not even close to being experts at this pick-your-battles theory of living, but it has definitely brought my son and I closer together. By actively showing him respect through listening to him through our disagreement and then engaging in a civil discussion, we are both learning that our views and feelings matter.

And while he still pushes those boundaries (sometimes pretty damn hard), I am finding that when I do choose to put my foot down, it is met with much less resistance because my kid can see that I at least gave him the benefit of the doubt first.